Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time catches up to Mr. Hitchens

kw: book reviews, collections, essays

I knew nothing of Christopher Hitchens besides his name when I obtained a collection of his essays titled and yet… I didn't know at the time that this was his final collection. There is no mention of an editor. Considering that the last five chapters didn't appear in print until after his death, I am forced to conclude that he prepared the book himself in his last months, with those last five essays awaiting publication in various journals, and that officers of his estate went ahead with the publication in 2015.

The book contains essays he wrote from 2004 until his death in 2011, with the exception of the first chapter, "Che Guevara: Goodbye to All That", from 1997. From the flyleaf I learned that he is one of the most prolific authors and essayists that I'd never heard of. I had heard of only one of his book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I suppose when I heard or saw that book referenced somewhere it planted his name in my memory.

Reading the 48 essays in and yet…, I was quite impressed with the breadth of his reading and interests. He brings in more "thoughts from left field" (and right field and center and from over the park wall) than I typically see from even the best essayists I have read. And he seems able to look at almost anything from an angle nobody else thought of. Writing of "Arthur Schlesinger: The Courtier" (pp 197-202), he illuminates the tension  between Schlesinger's attempt to retain some measure of distance from the Kennedy "Camelot", while becoming in effect a courtier in that court. In "The Politicians We Deserve", he notes that "Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run" [for public office]. He closes that 2010 essay on demagoguery with, "How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see." It seems to me it would be well to keep collections of his essays handy, lest we lose that collective memory of the surge and sway of culture and politics. In an era growing more divisive by the day, it is well to remember that these things have indeed happened before, and had Hitchens lived into this end of the 20-teens, he'd surely have a lot to say about that.

I am not much concerned that he was anti-god. A person of faith recognizes that most religion is used to replace faith rather than uphold it, so that his analysis in god is Not Great is in part correct. 'Tis a pity he never brought himself to give the time of day to anyone of genuine faith so as to have the chance to see the difference. Yet, in the world in which he dwelt, Hitchens had clearer vision that that world has a right to expect.

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